Illustration: Adeline Pericart
We laughed, we cried, we sneaked in our own popcorn. 2011 brought with it some memorable trips to the cinema to revel in the joy of film. And so the Film Ireland collection of filmbots look back in love and recall their favourite films of the last year in the latest installment of…
‘… portrays the human experience in a way we can easily recognise …’
The inevitable ‘2011’s best movie’ lists are always a point of minor contention, with guilty pleasures meaning that one man’s trash is another’s favourite film of all time. The exception to the bad list rules for me have always been those hidden gems that slip right through your fingers in the cinema and are eventually discovered accidentally afterwards. This year that movie for me was Beginners. With 2011 being the year of comic book heroics, the simplicity of this film caught me off guard, and captured me utterly. Follows the story of Oliver, a man in his late thirties so terrified of life that he avoids engaging in it.
Six months after his mother’s death, his father Hal comes to him with the news that he is gay, and now wants to explore this new aspect of his life. Hal then learns that he has terminal cancer, and throws himself fully into his new life for the time he has left. In many ways, his father is his opposite, and Oliver lives vicariously through him. Oliver has never had an indispensable relationship; his father has never had a relationship in which he has been truly honest. Beginners is the story of how they both find love and learn to lose themselves in life, a process to which they are both beginners.
What sets this movie apart for me is that, like some of my favourite films, it is a non-linear narrative. We follow the stream of Oliver’s evolving consciousness.The story takes place over three distinct periods of time. The film begins after Hal has passed away, when Oliver meets the unconventional actress Anna, and jumps between this, his childhood, and the period of his father’s illness effortlessly. There are no gimmicks to hide what is in essence a film driven by emotion. Our minds and emotions are very rarely linear; it is always refreshing to find art which portrays the human experience in a way we can easily recognise.
Beginners proves Ewan McGregor to be one of the most underrated actors of our time, he is engaging, warm and sympathetic in every scene, and there is never a moment that we do not want the best for him. Oliver is an artist by trade, as it appears to be the only place where he allows himself to let go of his inner constraints and portray how he really feels. Ironically, his customers only want art which comes from his surface, his mask. Christopher Plummer as Hal is an effortless presence throughout, we know his fate from the beginning but there is a constant essence of him that permeates each scene and is taken with us long after. There is a joy beyond dignified that emanates from him as he explores life. At his death there is a resigned sense of relief, there was nothing to hide at the end.
Beginners as a fun house mirror reflection of our life experiences. The simplicity with which Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical tale is told is what has cemented this as one of my favourite films of this year. It may not be for everyone, there are no car explosions to speak of, but it is sometimes the simplest of experiences which touch us the most. The growing love between Oliver and Anna retreats into being secondary to the relationship between Oliver and the world at large. It is refreshing to watch a movie in which romance plays a part but doesn’t take over and create saccharine loveliness. Love is not perfect and this movie reflects the way in which we are all beginners at our core, regardless of how much practice we put in.
It seems entirely appropriate that there is only one character with the knowledge of what is happening and what to do; unfortunately that character is a dog, Arthur. Here is non-linear storytelling at its finest. It is never too late to start over, and Hal leaves Oliver with this legacy, as the film conveys the message to its audience. Beginners is bittersweet and yet effortlessly hopeful movie, and who doesn’t want to end the year on a hopeful note?